Les Gara is photographed outside the Juneau Empire’s offices following an Oct. 5, 2022, interview in Juneau, Alaska. The former Anchorage lawmaker is the lone Democratic candidate in Alaska’s gubernatorial race. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Les Gara is photographed outside the Juneau Empire’s offices following an Oct. 5, 2022, interview in Juneau, Alaska. The former Anchorage lawmaker is the lone Democratic candidate in Alaska’s gubernatorial race. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Gara sticks to steady message on rocky campaign trail

Former Anchorage lawmaker seeking to become first Democrat elected governor since 1998.

Les Gara knows the path he wants to follow to become Alaska’s governor, and he’s not going to let obstacles such as a strong advantage by the opposing political party get in the way.

The Anchorage resident, who was a state lawmaker for 16 years, is the lone Democrat in a four-candidate race that includes two Republicans — including the incumbent who’s had a solid lead in every poll to date — plus an independent former governor who used to be a Republican. If he wins he’ll be the first Democrat to win a gubernatorial election in Alaska since Tony Knowles in 1998.

A victory would also mean Gara, whose running mate is longtime educator Jessica Cook, would have to deal with at least one body in the Alaska State Legislature dominated by Republicans as he seeks to enact major agenda items like repealing state subsidies to oil companies and appointing pro-choice judges.

But during a 45-minute interview Wednesday he talked about a legislative career of “reaching across the aisle” to get items such as an oil tax and foster care reform through at least one of the two legislative chambers (even if they ultimately failed to be implemented). He also repeatedly invoked favored phrases such as “police and teachers” and “you can’t run a state on austerity” when discussing a wide range of issues.

One of Gara’s first steps in navigating the obstacles in his path to leading the state is assuring voters he’s not what many people might consider a typical Democrat.

“East Coast Democrats are much less attuned with the public here than I think somebody like I am,” he said. “Alaska is a fishing state; Alaska is a hunting state; Alaska is a state where people do things in the outdoors. The whole idea of defund the police, which is sort of a fringe idea, doesn’t work in a state where we need to fund the police. We have 50 communities with no policing whatsoever. That’s a 19th-century value.”

Gara attributes the lack of police and plenty of other state problems to current Gov. Mike Dunleavy. During candidate forums and interviews throughout the campaign Gara has expressed many similar views as independent Bill Walker — the other major candidate in the race— but says there are significant differences with him as well.

The primary one is abortion, which Gara is making a cornerstone issue even though courts have ruled the privacy clause in Alaska’s Constitution clearly protects a woman’s right to choose. Walker says he is pro-life and supported some restrictive efforts as governor, but now supports the rights in the constitutional clause. Voter sentiment also appears to be against approving a constitutional convention where the cause could be revised, but Gara said the overturning of Roe v. Wade means a governor might be able to achieve a similar outcome here.

“The way you lose the right to choose in Alaska is if you have justices who are appointed who, like the federal justices, also say the right to privacy doesn’t cover the right to choose,” Gara said, adding he will specifically ask his judicial candidates about their stance.

Gara said he also differs from his opponents because he has over the years proposed having school funding keep pace with the rate of inflation.

“Alaska is starting to become a backwater when it comes to education and law enforcement because people know they can just come up here for a couple days and fish for a few years, tour the state for a couple of years and then move to another state where they’ll be treated better,” he said.

Another cornerstone issue of Gara’s is essentially how he plans to pay for more school funding, police, state pensions, infrastructure and the rest of his agenda items that cost money: repealing what he says is $1.2 billion in annual tax credit subsidies to oil and gas companies. According to the Alaska Department of Revenue’s website, $7 billion in such subsidies were provided during the pre-pandemic years from 2013 to 2019.

“I think the ideal system would be a tax on profits that goes up at high profit levels and goes down at low profit levels so we’re equal partners with the oil industry,” he said. “Right now we’re junior partners.”

Gara said he got a bill imposing such a tax on the industry through a bipartisan state House vote in 2017, although it died in the Republican-dominated Senate. As with some other agenda items, he said he’s hoping current large-scale realities make similar efforts more successful even if the state’s politicial realities are much the same.

“When Russia leaves Ukraine, as we hope will happen soon, oil prices are going to plummet again and we will need revenue,” he said.

Among the many uses for those funds, if he gets them, is properly staffing and maintaining the Alaska Marine Highway, which, like many politicians, he hopes gets a major fleet overhaul using a one-time infusion of federal infrastructure funds. Gara said his vision for long-term modernized system is one that operates much like coastal residents, especially in remote areas, were accustomed to in the past.

“What people need are ferries you can put their cars on, that people can transport cargo on, where businesses can transport business supplies and groceries,” he said. “We learned the whole fast ferry concept was a mess, was never going to work on choppy seas. We’ve learned from a ton of mistakes past governors have made about what kind of ferries we don’t want.”

Funding is also necessary to provide sufficient health care, housing, electricity and other societal aspects that will help reduce problems such as the workforce shortage hitting statewide as well as nationally. But Gara said stability in other ways is also part of his plan, such as when it comes to state employees — including himself if elected — who are supposed to be based in Juneau.

“I don’t believe in this idea of moving Juneau jobs to other cities, which has been a problem for a long time,” he said.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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